Late-Night TV Plays a Supporting Role in Charming Indie Film Ezra

For a long time the place for up-and-coming comics to get a real chance at breaking into the public’s consciousness was a five-minute stand-up feature on a late-night show.

An entire generation of the biggest-name comics—Letterman, Leno, Crystal, Seinfeld, Shandling, Pryor, Williams, DeGeneres—recognized that a shot in front of the national audience drawn nightly to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show was, in success, a golden ticket to a celebrated career.

Is that still true?

The answer is more complicated than it used to be because comics now have the opportunity to build a following solely on social media, doing sets on You Tube or Tik Tok, etc.

And younger comics, much more raised on the attraction of those social media sites, often look to score there rather than on TV, because many contemporary comedy clubs now book more often based on number of followers than a single hot set on late night.

But for comics who might be labeled “old school,” the lure of that late-night stage, in front of that live audience, with an established host sitting behind the desk only a few steps away, retains an irresistible pull.

And so it is entirely believable that a long-time New York comic, maybe deep into his 40’s, maybe awash in messy details of midlife, maybe struggling to come to terms with his personal relationships and whatever remains of his perception of his art, would find himself excited to the point of giddy at the prospect of a booking on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

That is not the central plotline of the new film Ezra, which opened Friday to mostly strong reviews; but it is central to the quest of the movie’s protagonist, stand-up comic Max Brandel, played by Bobby Cannavale, to pull himself out of a morass of family challenge and dysfunction, and toward an elevated career—and likely self-worth.

Ezra is much more about Max’s dedication—to the point of obsession—to his autistic son Ezra, who is bright, adorable and unconventional. Max has a divorced wife he still loves without reservation though now mostly unrequitedly, played by Cannavale’s real-life partner Rose Byrne, and an irascible father who embodies a previous generation’s familial dysfunction, as Robert De Niro definitively can.

But Max is a comic. He spends nights in the New York clubs, especially The Comedy Cellar, still dedicated to his craft, which is more “storytelling” than joke-telling. He has reached a kind of career watershed: make a more dependable income or go back to writing instead of performing.

It turns out Max had a writing gig with Conan O’Brien back in the day, until his hot head (oft displayed in the film) got the better of him and, as his manager, played by Whoopi Goldberg, recalls, he lost his job because he punched Conan “in the balls.”

In his defense, Max explains: “I was aiming for his stomach but he’s so f*cking tall!”

That’s a nice bit of late-night recognition (even if it’s almost impossible to believe anyone would take a swing at the endlessly congenial Conan.)

The film contrives to have Max and Ezra take off on an extra-legal road trip, as their bond becomes the engaged heart of the film. William A. Fitzgerald, (who, I learned on the real Kimmel show, is neurodivergent himself) is powerfully appealing as Ezra. And both Byrne and especially De Niro are excellent in the film.

But Ezra is Cannavale’s movie, and he captures this comic-depressive rather brilliantly. Tony Goldwyn appears as Byrne’s new partner, but it’s as the film’s real-life director that he makes a real impression. Goldwyn captures the comedy club scenes so realistically that I could believe Cannvale actually performed the routines and got laughs in the Comedy Cellar, one of the city’s best-known clubs.

And clearly Cannavale could be a comic himself. His delivery, his timing, his body language, his connection with the audience all play as totally genuine. The jokes are also far better-written (Tony Spiridakis is the writer) than in the vast majority of comic-as-character films.

The late-night subtext can feel a little dated (one reference to Arsenio seems from another time); and the notion of late night being the Promised Land for a comic (worth driving across the country for) is somewhat forced. For one thing, it’s not very kind to Jimmy Kimmel (who appears with sidekick Guillermo during the film’s credits; don’t quit too early) to portray his show as too cheap to pay airfare for a guest.

But the excitement even an ex-wife feels when she learns “you got Kimmel?” is resonant of many stories I’ve heard of that energizing, unforgettable moment in a career when true recognition may be in the offing for a stand-up.

Not that long ago a still somewhat obscure comic got a shot because Jimmy Fallon saw him in a club and booked him on The Tonight Show, where he was a smash with Jimmy and the audience.

This season Nate Bargatze hosted Saturday Night Live. So why couldn’t Max Brandel?

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